May 22, 2024

A Year in the Life of a Farmer: Classifiers provide herd evaluations

AgriNews has followed the Mitchell family throughout the entire year, providing updates about the family members and the decisions they make on their farm.

WINNEBAGO, Ill. — Classifying Holstein cows gives dairymen an unbiased evaluation of the phenotype of their cows.

“That information is used in two ways,” said Maureen DeBruin, classifier for Holstein Association USA.

“It is used to help with bull selection to correct the phenotype of the animal and every time a cow is scored that data goes into the performance file not only for the cow, but for the sire of that cow to create our bull proofs.”

DeBruin was recently at the Mitchell Dairy and Grain LLC farm to score about 180 cows of the 400-cow registered Holstein herd.

“Breeders use this information to identify elite cows they want to flush or market,” said DeBruin, who has traveled the country for 38 years to classify cows for the Holstein association. “And it helps them create a functional cow that will live longer and milk more for more dollars.”

A classifier visits the Winnebago County dairy farm every seven months.

“So, the cows are from two to nine months since they calved,” said John Mitchell, who together with his brother, Aaron, are partners in Mitchell Dairy and Grain LLC.

All cows that hadn’t received a score under 36 months of age and currently milking were scored by DeBruin plus a group of optional cows.

“The average cow improves at least three points in her lifetime and some get a lot better, some get worse and some stay the same,” she explained.

“A cow can go up or down until she receives a score after her fifth birthday and then she’s locked in. The score can go up, but it can’t go down.”

“Our goal is to have the entire herd move in positive direction from where they’ve been in the past,” John said. “Nobody likes to get up early in the morning and milk ugly cows.”

For example, one of the cows scored Very Good 85, up from 78 the previous time a classifier gave her a score.

“She’s improved a bunch from first to second calf,” John noted. “So, if we were going to sell her daughter at a consignment sale that can build some value.”

DeBruin, who lives in Wisconsin, travels 20 days out of 30 for the Holstein association.

“I’ve scored cows in all but four states — Alaska, Hawaii, Alabama and Rhode Island — and we use to go out of the country, so I’ve also been to China, Spain and Puerto Rico,” she said. “Currently, there are 16 of us that do this and I was the second female hired to be a classifier.”

Most classifiers are dairy science majors and some are former breeders, DeBruin said.

“I’m the only lady now and there has only been three lady classifiers,” she added. “The average classifier does 2,000 cows per month and through my years I’ve classified about a million cows.”

Classifiers work in all kinds of weather throughout the year.

“When I first started we used carbon paper and clipboards,” DeBruin said. “One nice thing was you couldn’t work in snow storms or rain showers, but now we have computers which allows us to work in inclement weather.”

To get a number for each cow, DeBruin evaluates 17 individual traits in five major dairy scorecard breakdowns.

“The major breakdowns give you a picture of that cow,” she explained. “If I give you a group of those numbers, you should be able to picture that cow in your head or draw her.”

Looking Back

Looking back on 2022, John said, this year seems like one of the wildest rides of milk prices that they’ve had.

“We’ve gone from setting all-time highs in May to August and September where we received government payments because milk prices have come down and hay prices continued to get higher,” he explained. “This inflationary, volatility-type environment has been crazy.”

However, most dairy farmers would say 2022 has been a pretty good year, John added.

“Year over year, we’re sitting financially in a better place than we were 12 months ago,” he said.

This was a good year for making feed for the dairy herd.

“In the last week or so, we started getting into our 2022 corn silage,” the dairyman said. “All indications so far is that it seems to be pretty smooth sailing.”

Right before Thanksgiving, the dairymen got their first load from a candy recycling plant in Rockford.

“That was going to replace about a quarter of our dry corn needs at a slight discount to what dry corn would cost,” John said. “But in early December they announced they’re closing the plant and they might be open next year or they might not.”

Mitchell has enough of this feed to keep it in the ration until about the middle of January.

“It seems to be feeding fine. We haven’t noticed anything positive or negative other than it’s a little cheaper than corn,” he added.

“We fed some from a different company in Aurora probably five years ago,” John said. “It was a little more variable and we had some challenges with logistics of loading and unloading it.”

The product coming from the Rockford plant seems to be more consistent.

“They mixed it with oat hulls which helped for flowability and that brought a little fiber to it, so we thought we were onto something interesting,” the dairyman said.

“We had been feeding soy hulls for the past year, but those have gotten to be pretty expensive so we were looking to switch some things around,” John explained.

“Distillers grains have been a pretty good buy, so we’ve been a little heavier on that than in the past.

“We have pricing on more of our feed committed to at this point than we’ve had for a number of years,” the dairyman reported. “We’ll see if that’s good or bad, but at least we can plan for it.”

The Mitchells have Dairy Revenue Protection insurance for the first and second quarters of 2023 and they just signed up for the Dairy Margin Coverage program for 2023 at the Farm Service Agency office.

“Last year, we updated our production history, so now the DMC covers 5 million pounds of our milk production,” John said. “It’s a good safety net, but we’ll produce 13 million pounds of milk in a year.”

There are a couple of things with crop rotation that the Mitchells will need to figure out for 2023, including their plan for applying manure to the fields.

“We have a neighbor who passed away, so it’s not going to be possible to cross that farm anymore with our drag line for applying manure,” John said.

“Hopefully, we’ll find some good places to apply manure, but it’s disappointing to not be able to get to some of our further away fields that we could before because now the route to get there is too long.”

Another change is no wheat is planted for 2023.

“We won’t have any wheat ground to apply manure,” the dairyman said. “So, we’re looking at how to spread some on alfalfa or possibly plant some summer annuals rather than corn and then we could apply manure there.”

Mitchell may need to purchase some straw.

“We have a pretty decent carryover from the last couple of years,” he said. “With the wheat mill in Mendota, we’re seeing quite a few people plant more wheat, so I’m not too worried about being able to find some straw fairly local.”

Earlier this month, Aaron passed his responsibilities as chairman of the Illinois Farm Bureau State Young Leader Committee to Sadie Asher, and in January, he will travel to San Juan, Puerto Rico, for the American Farm Bureau Convention.

Also in January, John and Katie are expecting their second child.

“We are getting prepared for our son in the middle of January, so hopefully that will be after Aaron is back from Puerto Rico,” John said.

During the IFB annual meeting, Brent Pollard, the current president of the Winnebago-Boone Farm Bureau, was elected to the IFB Board of Directors.

As a result, John, who is the vice president of the Winnebago-Boone Farm Bureau, plans to run for president during the annual meeting in March.

“I’ve been vice president for three different presidents,” John said. “But I didn’t want to be president while Aaron was the Young Leader chair.”

John served as interim president from March through June in 2020.

“That was during COVID, so lots of things were canceled and meetings were on Zoom, so the expectations will be different in 2023,” he said.

“Brent and the previous two presidents were awesome in communicating with people on the board and staff, so they will be hard presidents to follow.”

Martha Blum

Martha Blum

Field Editor